Building Bridges Out of Poverty in Peterborough, Ontario

“Individuals bring with them the hidden rules of the class in which they were raised.”
Ruby K. Payne

Lynn Smith-Reeve still feels an “internal panic” when vegetable prices rise at the grocery store.

It’s been years now since Smith-Reeve has had to worry about those kinds of things, but the effects of two decades of living in poverty linger. Her past experience  — of poverty and how she found a way out — has been key to her present-day fight to help community members in need.

Coming together


Lynn Smith-Reeve

It was a small, supportive group of friends, including her church minister, that helped pull Smith-Reeve out of that dark pit of poverty. They sat down with her and asked the right questions at the right time.

“What are you passionate about? What do you like to do? What are are you good at? What needs to happen?”

Knowing how that mentorship helped her, she recognised the power of the Bridges Out of Poverty (BOOP) program, when she discovered it a few years ago, to make a difference in how low-income people could learn the “hidden rules” that keep them poor, and then act and shift beliefs to build a way out — on their own terms.

“People in poverty are stuck in survival mode,” explained Smith-Reeve. “It’s hard enough to get through the day or the week without trying to figure out what to do in five years. The more unstable our lives are, the more we are unable to make change.”

Smith-Reeve is a facilitator at Bedford House, a community social action hub, in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, Ontario, and minister at nearby Bethany-Pontypool United Church. Bedford House was one of the first organizations to use the BOOP concepts in a program – offering continued support to low-income individuals working to stabilize their lives – to Canada from the United States two and a half years ago.

bridges sunflowerMuch like her own experience, Bedford House’s Bridging Teams bring together small, confidential groups of people dedicated to improving the community by “bridging” the poverty gap. Middle and upper-income folks are trained, as volunteer mentors, to  support and encourage lower-income participants to realise their own goals and create their own solutions. 

An “accidental” poverty

Smith-Reeve grew up in a stable lower middle-class home in various cities in Ontario. With only a one-year college diploma, she married in 1981 and had five children in 10 years, all of whom she home-schooled. Early in the marriage, her husband began having pancreatitis attacks which, by 1993, caused him to become increasingly incapacitated. Smith-Reeve became a full-time care-giver to him, who “nearly died, so many times,” and eventually had both his legs amputated, she said.

The family received social assistance through the  Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which left the family of seven in poverty.

“Around Christmas was very depressing. We were given $105 form ODSP for winter clothing per child, and we would use some of that for Christmas presents.”

Years later, she discovered that if she had given up the children to foster care, the foster parents would have received more money to raise them than she did — “a really hard realisation”.

It was when her husband entered a long-term care facility in 2009 at the age of 52 that Smith-Reeve knew she was in more trouble, as the ODSP would go with him. He died in 2013.

“I realised the day he went in, the money would be gone. So what was I going to do?”

She had always been heavily involved in her church, and it was at that time, with the help of her friends, that she figured out her two interests were education and the church. This led her to return to school, earning bursaries along the way so she was never in debt, and become a diaconal minister in the United Church.  Throughout this time, she was involved in social justice work and pastoral care. She also remarried, to Allan Smith-Reeve, now the minister at Greenwood United Church just outside Peterborough, — and found herself in a whole new world — a middle-class world.

“I have a passion for this because of my personal path. I found my voice again. It had been lost in poverty.” 

“It was very interesting because I was beginning to experience these cultural differences, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There were challenges,” she said.

She now knows why.

The hidden rules

Part of the BOOP program, developed by aha! Process Inc., teaches participants about the hidden rules of society’s economic classes — an  unspoken cueing system that individuals use to indicate membership in a group — and which can act as systemic barriers to those trying to change. They are cultural ways people think about and act on the many different aspects of life. (See below for examples).

Every group has its own rules and if someone wants to move into the middle class they have to know and be able to use those hidden rules. For example, schools and businesses operate from middle-class norms and use the hidden rules of the middle class, which, of course, are never directly taught in schools or businesses. 


“It’s just a different way of being in the world. It’s not that one is right or wrong. It’s just a different culture,” said Smith-Reeve.

bridges bridgeShe said she hopes the anti-poverty work she and the Bedford House team do, not only helps lower-class people, but also helps middle-class people understand poverty.

“People tend to think it’s their (poor people’s) fault. Society is often very good at the charity model. I remember at Christmas our church would give us an entire meal. It was such a gift, but once it was eaten it was eaten and gone,” she said.

It’s like giving someone a bouquet of cut flowers, instead of the whole plant, she explained. “The flowers die, and the situation doesn’t change.”

 But Bridges Out of Poverty concepts and the Bridging Teams help the situation change, she said.

“I have a passion for this because of my personal path. I found my voice again. It had been lost in poverty.” 

Examples of “hidden rules” or different ways of thinking for upper, middle and lower-classes.  Three VOICES: #1 represents high income; #2 represents middle income; #3 represents low income.

ONE: Why don’t they just get a job?

TWO: Why don’t they just learn to manage their budgets better?

THREE: Do I spend money on a cheap cell phone so someone can contact me to hire me, or do I buy bus tickets so I can go apply for jobs?

ONE: Food must look good. It’s important that a restaurant puts attention on its meal presentation. Each plate should be a work of art.

TWO: Food must taste good. I’m trying out a new recipe from Syria on our guests tonight. I’m told it’s delicious. It’s going to take all afternoon to make, but it will be worth it.

THREE: There just needs to be enough food. Who has time to spend hours preparing a meal? It’s only food! The important thing is that everyone gets enough to eat.

See also: Fighting Poverty With A New Attitude

By Melodie McCullough

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